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Seven Continents: Greg Davis (UTS’89)

About the “Seven Continents” Series

This series explores the global reach of UTS through its remarkable alumni around the globe.

UTS alumni are evangelists for their faith, pastors in established communities, care-givers for the old, and the sick, teachers in schools, colleges and universities, and inter-faith practitioners in dialogue with others around the world. Actually our alumni are present in 65 countries on seven continents. There are seven continents, but as far as we know there are no alumni currently working in Antarctica. The other six continents are: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. 

Our students become scholars, chaplains, lawyers, journalists, church administrators, youth organizers, NGO leaders, and social or business entrepreneurs. Often students go on to add additional professional qualifications to become social workers, therapists, counselors and nurses. Many complete doctorate degrees to advance their careers; other UTS alumni are in higher education teaching at the school, college and university level.

Midnight Ride to Riga

I should have known better. The year was 1991 and here I was “behind enemy lines,” literally. I was in the Communist nation of Latvia, a beautiful, predominantly rural country which, along with Estonia and Lithuania, were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) known as “the Baltic states.”  I was there as a volunteer with permission from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev himself. He agreed, by special arrangement, to allow our organization, the International Leadership Seminars (ILS), to hold our seminars there. We were teaching principles of God, spirituality and leadership to college students.

The best and the brightest students from the top universities from across the country came by the thousands into Riga, the capital of Latvia and the country’s largest city, by train. We made arrangements to use the facilities known as “sanatoriums,” a type of retreat center spread out by the dozens in the countryside, where the exalted leaders of the Communist Party would go to relax from their stressful jobs of exploiting the people of their nation.

Some of these places were quite amazing, with “state of the art” theaters, spas, swimming pools and well-stocked dining halls where the party elite ate very well. All this while a few miles away their comrades were waiting in long lines for a piece of dark bread and a slice of sausage. If they were lucky they might get a can of milk. So much for the “People’s Republic.”

I was assigned to a facility (camp) located about two miles outside Riga. The city was quite modern (by Soviet standards) with numerous “western-style restaurants” where you could get a good meal for about 100 rubles ($2), which was about a third of the average comrade’s monthly wage. There was also a western-style hotel and a number of shops with lovely windows that even had a few items for sale. But mostly there were just a lot of shops selling local crafts and produce.

The pride and joy of Riga was its rail station, which was a central hub in the Baltics, receiving trains from all over the Soviet Union. There was an attractive courtyard surrounding the main terminal with a promenade filled with hundreds of travelers hurrying here and there. And they had… ice cream. For two copecs (less than a penny) you could buy an ice cream cone from one of several entrepreneurs doing business.

Our seminars – which lasted a week and hosted about 200 students at each location – finished on a Saturday, at which time the volunteers would have a day off and would go into Riga and the local towns to wander and sightsee. We usually did this in groups and mostly with local guides who worked with us as translators and “facilitators.” The facilitators performed the impossible, such as finding buses when there “were no buses” and other improbable tasks.

On my free day I chose to go into Riga with some students who had become my friends and were taking the train back to their respective cities. We had hired a few locals who owned their own cars (a rarity) to drive us to and from Riga since we didn’t know the area.

I love adventure. I’m always one to go off the beaten path in search of a new and interesting experience. Robert Frost’s iconic poem The Road Not Taken was written for me and all the other Aries who won’t take no for answer and insist on doing it themselves or, perhaps more appropriately, to themselves.

So, instead of dropping my friends off at the train station I chose to ride with one of them to their small town about two hours away. What could possibly go wrong? After all, I was only going two hours away and I was with a Russian-speaking individual. I was only four or five stops away from Riga. My friend, Yuri, who spoke very good English, said when we got to his town he would help me get a return ticket back to Riga and all I had to do was stay on the train and get off when the train arrived there. How hard could it be? Besides, we had the whole afternoon to get better acquainted and when I got back to Riga I could simply catch local transport back to the camp.

Everything went according to plan. We had a great time talking about our families and sharing about the ideas presented in the seminar. As we traveled I paid close attention to each station so I could recall it on the return trip. As planned, when we arrived at Yuri’s hometown he got me a return ticket and carefully instructed me not to talk to anybody; just stay on the train until it reached Riga. I nodded, and assured him it would be no problem. “Spasibo,” (thank you).

We said our goodbyes and Yuri made sure I got on the right train and I took a seat by the window. I watched as my friend faded from view and I thought about all the amazing experiences we had shared in the seminar, which was as much about sharing and understanding each other’s culture as it was about anything else.

Over the last several days we had sung together, prayed together, eaten together and, in some cases, shed tears together. Certainly an otherworldly experience neither of us would soon forget.

I continued staring out the window and the miles rolled by. As the train rumbled toward its destination my mind began to wander, and before I knew it I was lost… in thought.